History of Winchester

England's Ancient capital

Winchester is steeped in history. People visit this beautiful city for many different reasons but it's the history that keeps people coming back. 

So what is the history of Winchester?

It appears that the first residents of Winchester arrived in the Iron Age, around 150BC, and established both a hill fort (the remains of an Iron Age hillfort can still be seen today on St Catherine’s Hill) and also a trading settlement on the western edge of the modern city. Winchester remained the exclusive home of the Celtic Belgae tribe for the next couple of centuries.

Photograph of what remains of the Iron Age fort at St. Catherine's Hill in Winchester. It's mainly just the outline picked out by variations in the grasslands along with the contour of the hill.
St Catherine's Hill fort

in AD43, shortly after the Romans landed in Kent, Iron Age forts across the whole of southern Britain were captured and Roman rule was imposed upon the local population.

It seems that the residents of Winchester didn’t put up much of a fight and may have actually welcomed the Romans in with open arms due to the hill fort falling into disrepair. The Romans started to build their own ‘new town’ at Winchester, known as Venta Belgarum (market place of the Belgae). Over centuries of Roman occupation this new town became the region’s capital with streets laid out in a grid pattern to accommodate the houses, shops, temples and public baths. By the 3rd century the wooden town defences were replaced with stone walls, at which time Winchester extended to almost 150 acres, making it the fifth largest town in Roman Britain 

Map of Roman Winchester
Map of Roman Winchester

By the 4th century, along with other Romano-British towns, Winchester started to decline in importance and in AD407 when the last Roman legions withdrew from Britain, Winchester and the other once important bustling towns and cultural centres were simply abandoned.

All was not lost though as around AD430 a host of Germanic migrants started arriving in England. Over the next century or so the invading kings and their armies established their kingdoms. Most of these kingdoms survive to this day, and are better known as the English counties; Kent (Jutes), East Anglia (east Angles), Sussex (south Saxons), Middlesex (middle Saxons) and Wessex (west Saxons).

The Saxons referred to the now almost abandoned Roman settlements as ‘caester’, and so in west Saxon Wessex, Venta Belgarum became Venta Caester, before being changed to Wintancaester and eventually the name we know today, Winchester. 

In AD871 at the age of 21, Alfred (Aelfred) ‘The Great’, was declared ruler of the west Saxons and crowned King of Wessex after he and his brother defeated the Danish Vikings at the Battle of Ashdown. He quickly established Winchester as his capital.

To protect Wessex from the Danes, Alfred built a navy of new fast ships to defend against attack from the sea. He assembled the local militia into ‘rapid reaction forces’ to defend from the land, and started a building programme of fortified settlements across England for these new forces to gather and defend from.

Saxon Winchester was rebuilt with its streets laid out in a Saxon grid pattern which can still be viewed today from St Giles Hill. People were encouraged to settle in Winchester and make it their home so soon the town was flourishing again. During this time both New Minster and Nunnaminster were founded. Together, they quickly became the most important centres of art and learning in England.

A photographic view from high up on St Giles Hill down Winchester to High Street. The image takes in the back of the statue of King Alfred, the Guildhall and the Saxon street layout. There are people walking along the pavements on both sides of the road and cars parked along too but only a car, a taxi and 2 vans are moving along the road
view from St Giles Hill

Following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, King Harold’s widow, who was staying in Winchester, surrendered the town to the invading Normans. Shortly after William the Conqueror ordered the rebuilding of the Saxon royal palace and the construction of a new castle to the west of the town. The Normans were also responsible for demolishing the Old Minster Cathedral and starting the construction of the new present cathedral on the same site in 1079. 

A photograph of Winchester cathedral taken directly from the front. It's a summer's day and the sky is a vivid blue. People are sitting on the grass and steps in front of the cathedral wearing shirts and t shirts. It's busy but not crowded.

Although there were many royal births, deaths and marriages within Winchester, the town's fortunes began to decline during the 12th and 13th centuries as power and prestige began shifting to the new capital in London, including the relocation of the royal mint.

In 1348-49 the Black Death arrived. Brought into England from mainland Europe by migrating Asian black rats, disaster struck when in 1391 it returned in earnest. During the subsequent decades it’s estimated that more than half the population of Winchester may have succumbed to the disease.

During the Middle Ages most of the fortunes of Winchester rested on the woollen industry. In Winchester wool was cleaned, spun, dyed and woven into cloth to be sold but by 1500 there was so much competition throughout the south of England for this industry that it’s estimated the town's population shrunk to around just 4,000.

The town’s decline was to worsen in 1538-9 with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. In Winchester this meant the city’s three monastic institutions were sold off to the highest bidder including their lands, buildings and other possessions further reducing the importance of this once great town. 

A closeup photograph of the hands of a white lady spinning raw wool into yarn. You can't see the lady, just her hands and the spinning wheel. The wool is a natural yellow white colour and the spinning wheel is a light brown wood
Spinning wool

During the English Civil War from 1642-1651, Winchester changed hands several times. Through Winchester’s long established association with royalty the locals supported the king so in one of the final acts of that long and bloody conflict Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament of England army destroyed Winchester Castle, preventing it from falling into royalist hands ever again. 

These days Winchester is a quiet market city with a population of around 35,000 which is a far cry from those dark days of only around 4,000. As you walk around Winchester today you are reminded from many places that this city was once the ancient capital of England. There is history everywhere you go in and the locals are understandably very proud of their history and heritage. Check out our Historic Holidays page on our website for information on ancient and more modern history you can visit and see within the city of Winchester. 

One thing is for sure, you will never be bored in Winchester!

A photograph of Winchester, Hampshire, UK taken from a hill top point. The photograph shows Winchester cathedral surrounded by green and golden tree. The distance is also very green with trees and only a small strip of bluey grey sky can be seen to the top of the image.s
Winchester cathedral

Head on over to our Book Accommodation page to view our properties and book your trip to this beautiful and historic ancient capital.